In 2015, a documentary was released called A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story. Directed by Sara Hirsh Bordo, the founder of Women Rising production company, the film focuses on Lizzie Velasquez, a 33-year-old woman born with an extremely rare congenital disease that prevents her from accumulating body fat and gaining weight.
Growing up, Velasquez struggled with bullying. When she was just 13 years old, an anonymous person posted a video of her on YouTube, titling it “the world’s ugliest woman”. The video went viral. Not willing to let this experience define her, Velasquez triumphed over adversity by using her voice to help others who have been bullied as a motivational speaker and anti-bullying activist.
A Brave Heart Was Bordo’s Directorial Debut
A Brave Heart, which chronicles Lizzie Velasquez’s journey from victim to activist, was Bordo’s directorial debut. It quickly made an impact after its release, resonating with audiences and winning multiple awards. Reflecting on the experience seven years later, Bordo describes how her proudest moment as a filmmaker was the “alchemy and joy and magic” of bringing Velasquez’s story to life.
In 2013, Women Rising, which has a mission of creating content and experiences to empower women and girls, had produced and programmed the inaugural TEDxAustinWomen event, which featured Lizzie Velasquez as a speaker (her talk went viral and has since been viewed more than 38 million times).
Lizzie Velasquez’s Story Inspired Bordo to Become a Filmmaker
Bordo says she wasn’t the type of person who grew up lugging around a Super 8 Camera. It was witnessing the impact of Velasquez’s story that brought her to documentary filmmaking.
“For me it was after my team created and broadcasted TEDxAustinWomen and gave everyone 15 minutes of Lizzie,” she told toast. “I think it was watching and reading and listening to what the power of Lizzie did for millions of people.”
Bordo says she was terrified, because she’d never made a feature-length documentary before and knew that it would require enormous trust from Velazquez and her family to film such a personal story.
But she knew she had to take a chance — and Bordo told herself to just take it one step at a time, which first involved calling Velazquez and asking for the opportunity to tell her story: “I called her and, and I said, ‘There’s no reason why you should say yes to this, but I think I’m supposed to do your documentary and I will take care of you while we do it.’ And that was it.”
A Brave Heart Was ‘One Little Miracle’ After Another
After bringing Velazquez on board, Bordo describes how it was “one little miracle” after the next, including raising their budget for the film in less than six months: “And we filmed the whole movie and edited it and delivered it to festival in nine months. Coincidentally, it was a very intimate, mothering experience for me to do.”
Bordo says the success of the film, and how it resonated with audiences, went beyond her wildest dreams: “Lizzie and I just kept pinching ourselves. And watching her story and her candor and her bravery, in front of audiences and what that did, and the stories I was sent afterwards about how it was saving lives — it’s just deeply, deeply, deeply humbling. And I think that it’s my favorite because it was first, but maybe I haven’t had my favorite yet.”
Bringing Forward Stories ‘You’ve Haven’t Seen Before’ through Women Rising
Since A Brave Heart, Bordo’s career highlights include producing Tightly Wound, an animated film about a woman’s experience living with chronic pelvic pain, and producing and directing ProtectHer, a feature documentary about a sexual assault prevention program that engages young male athletes in redefining masculinity, started by female activist Alexis Jones.
Bordo says she is drawn to “bringing forward stories of women and girls that you haven’t seen before; that you haven’t heard before. I think that stories can be medicine.”
Telling the Heroine’s Story
Bordo says whether the topic is bullying or sexual assault or women’s health, she is most interested in telling character-driven stories: “I’m very moved by the model of the hero or heroine’s journey. I think that we are in a very igniting time for women.”
She adds her difficult life experiences have given her the compassion and drive to tell these types of stories. In the early 2000s, Bordo describes how she moved from Chicago to Lost Angeles after finalizing her divorce, hoping for a fresh start. After living in Los Angeles for about two months, she was sexually assaulted.
“I was handed a lot of lessons young, and I think that that helped me — it’s definitely shaped me into the woman that I am,” she says. “I have compassion for a lot of different communities because I have walked a lot of different roads in a short amount of time. And hopefully there are many more ahead of me.”
What’s Next for Bordo and Women Rising
Bordo is consulting on the marketing for an upcoming female-led Sony-Marvel film, working on the sequel to Tightly Wound and she’s also writing a book.
“I’ve always been kind of fearless about paving a path that feels right to me,” she says. “I’ve never really played by the rules all that much.”
When asked if she had any advice for readers about blazing their own trail, she stressed that people should not compare their journey to anyone else’s, but instead, “Take one brave step of sharing their voice, using their voice, finding their voice, inviting their voice in at a time and acting on it… All individuals are not empowered the same. And the sooner that we recognize that, it allows us to be a little bit more in touch with the voice from the inside.”
Lead image credit: Sara Hirsh Bordo, founder of Women Rising production company, behind the camera. Photo courtesy of Sara Hirsh Bordo.